Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, Vol. I, John F. Crosby ed., Brian McNeil tr., Steubenville, OH: The von Hildebrand Project, 2016; 470 pages. ISBN: 978-1939773043.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, Vol. II, John F. Crosby and John H. Crosby eds., Brian McNeil tr., Steubenville, OH: The von Hildebrand Project, 2018; 576 pages. ISBN 978-1939773104.

Reviewed by Antonio Calcagno, King’s University College at Western University.

Known for his contributions to phenomenology and ethics, the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) is less known for his late works on aesthetics. The recent publication of the two massive tomes that constitute his mature thought on beauty is a great boon for philosophy, as it brings to English-speaking readers von Hildebrand’s systematic account and defence of beauty as a meaningful, objective, value-laden reality that deeply structures and affects human personality. The two volumes of Aesthetics are masterfully translated by Fr. Brian McNeil and edited by John F. and John H. Crosby. As each volume consists of numerous chapters, I am unable to present them all here. I will instead concentrate on highlighting important philosophical moves made in von Hildebrand’s work.

Volume I consists of twenty one chapters that phenomenologically describe the essence of beauty. The volume opens with a seminal discussion of the objectivity of beauty. The goal here is to show that beauty is not simply a relative, subjective experience or matter of taste. Drawing from his masterwork Ethics, the philosopher remarks, “Value embodies the true, the valid, the objectively important. It has a place in the order of fundamental notions other than the subjectively satisfying. It belongs…to those ultimate data and notions such as being, truth, and knowledge, which can neither be defended nor denied without tacitly reintroducing them.” (I, 15) Von Hildebrand points to the difference between this and the subjective account of beauty, saying that “This color is beautiful, this melody is beautiful”—not “beautiful for me.” (I, 16) Critiquing thinkers like Hume, Santayana, and G.E. Moore, von Hildebrand argues that beauty is a value that has importance in itself:

Let me sum up our result. There is first of all the value of the beauty itself, a specifically aesthetic value that adheres to the object. In order to make a philosophical analysis of the value of the beauty, we need not examine the state of being-affected and the value -responses which are made to the beauty. We must concentrate totally on the object, although this naturally presupposes that we have experienced the beauty, have directly perceived it prior to all philosophical analysis, and are deeply moved by it. Already at this point there is a state-of-affairs-value [Sachsverhaltswert] that must be distinguished from the beauty itself; I refer to the value that belongs to the existence of the beautiful landscape or work of art, that is, to the fact that it exists. (I, 71)

The objectivity of beauty lies in the object itself and is not simply a projection of value onto an object by the subject. Von Hildebrand adds two other aspects to the foregoing description of beauty:

There is secondly the value of the human person’s attitude. Being moved by genuine beauty, as well as the value-response of enthusiasm to the beauty of a work of art or to the beauty of nature, are themselves bearers of genuine personal value. Thirdly, there is the state-of-affairs-value that belongs to the fact that a human person perceives something truly beautiful, is moved by it, and the right response to it. (I, 71)

Von Hildebrand then goes on to distinguish different kinds of beauty, including metaphysical, audible, and visible beauty. He notes that metaphysical beauty can irradiate other values, like intellectual, personal, and moral ones. Volume I also devotes attention to the role of the senses and the body in the experience of beauty. The philosopher notes that the body acts as a “bearer” (I, 146) of very high beauty of visible and audible form. The senses act as an important gateway that allows the individual to begin to be affected by and understand the beautiful, especially in the experience of charm. (I, 147) Von Hildebrand examines various expressions of beauty in the first volume, including poetic beauty, elegance, immaterial beauty, nature, human life, the comical, as well as the connection of beauty to truth, morality, and love.

One also finds here two important chapters, which I would like to discuss—namely the antitheses to beauty and the experience of beauty. The former helps to clarify the nature of values associated with beauty, and the latter describes various aspects of the lived experience of beauty. Von Hildebrand identifies three antitheses to beauty: ugliness, triviality, and boringness. He notes that the most marked experience of ugliness can be seen in the moral and religious sphere, especially when it comes to the experience of metaphysical beauty. He notes,

The terrible ugliness of moral evil is the most typical example of this metaphysical ugliness. Indeed, we can speak of the “stench” of sin. Here we see the total contrary opposite of the exalted beauty of moral goodness. This applies all the more to the religious sphere. The monstrous ugliness of the hatred of God is the radical opposite of the transfigured beauty of all that is holy. (I, 261)

Ugliness can result from the disturbance of the principle of form or be embodied in a certain type of form, for example, the ugly toad.

Triviality is antithetical to what von Hildebrand calls the beauty of the second power, that is, the spiritual (and not merely sensory) beauty that is associated with the divine as seen in, following Cardinal Newman, things like music and poetry. The philosopher notes that triviality does not utter a “no” to beauty.

On the contrary it is a fake beauty and plays the role in this context that evil plays in the moral experience. Although it does not “utter” the hostile, public “no” that ugliness utters to beauty, it is the specific enemy of artistic beauty. It is the negativum, the maxime negativum in the world of art. If we wish to draw a bold comparison in order to indicate the qualitative difference between ugliness and triviality, we could say that ugliness corresponds, as it were, to the negativity of physical pain, but triviality corresponds to the negativity of nausea. (I, 267–68)

Kitsch is an example of the trivial, as it is an imitation of what is real. Von Hildebrand concludes his discussion of the trivial by relating it to the human person. He makes three important distinctions. First, there exist trivial persons who enjoy solely trivial things and, therefore, have no understanding of true art. Second, there are trivial human beings, who can appreciate genuine art. Finally, there are untrivial personalities, whose “essence irradiates a sublime poetry—yet they do not notice the trivial, nor do they reject it. One example is Saint Thérèse of Lisieux…” (I, 273) Triviality can be qualitatively experienced in four ways: as mawkish, vivacious, mediocre, and as shallow and cheap. (I, 270–71)

Boringness is an experience marked by non-entertainment, on one hand, and the fullness of content, on the other hand. Boringness is understood as having both subjective and objective sides. Persons can be bored by something, in which case they feel themselves unentertained by something. Individuals may also be boring; that is, their person is beset by a certain affective disposition, for example, lack of humour, or slowness of speech that may strike others as boring. But the person as person is never boring, says von Hildebrand.

A person as person is, however, never boring. As soon as we penetrate in genuine love of neighbor through to the awe-inspiring greatness of every immortal soul that is called by God and must give account of itself before God, the entire quality of boringness is left behind. (I, 280)

Objectively speaking, objects can be boring, for example, a book or a piece of music. “The specific quality of the boring unfolds most genuinely and thematically in human works. A philosophical book can be definitely boring when it devotes considerable space to the detailed repetition of commonplaces and truisms.” (I, 280–81)

Von Hildebrand maintains that in addition to beauty being understood as value and disvalue, beauty can also be grasped as an aesthetic experience. The experience of beauty is not connected to the experience of pleasure or of something being pleasing to oneself. Pleasure can be caused by many things, but the experience itself does not constitute the beautiful. One feels pleasure, the philosopher notes, because the object is valuable—because of its beauty: “Rather the being pleased presupposes an aesthetic value in the object, either a genuinely existing aesthetic value or an apparent one.” (I, 370) Though von Hildebrand dismisses the identification of the experience of pleasure or pleasantness with beauty, he does remark that there is a special sense necessary to apprehend beauty. (I, 371) One must be open to beauty and one must be able to be affected by it, moved by it, in order for its value to shine through to us.

Whereas Volume I of the Aesthetics focussed on providing a rich phenomenological account of beauty understood as an objective value, Volume II looks at beauty in the different arts, including architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music. The latter volume opens with a discussion of the ontology of works of art and the discussion of its real being, distinct from the artist who produced it. “A work of art, whether it be a church, a palace, a statue, a picture, a novel, or a symphony, is always a spiritual ‘something’ that is a curious quasi-substance of a spiritual [geistig] kind. It is always an individual. A unified ‘something’.” (II, 5) Spiritual, for von Hildebrand, is understood in the traditional phenomenological senses of (1) belonging to or extending from the realms of human intellect and will; and/or (2) having a meaningful essence. (II, 6) Interestingly, the second volume also begins with a delineation of wrong or harmful attitudes that inhibit beauty, including the prejudice of nationalism, following fads, trends, and fashions, and the presentist belief in seeing value only in what is present in one’s own epoch, what von Hildebrand calls “chronolatry.” (II, 24–5)

Though the second volume focusses on specific different arts, von Hildebrand reminds readers that while the arts are distinct, they also relate and draw from one another. They do not work in isolation. Following the classic Renaissance argument that all art can be both beautiful and practical, architecture is identified as different from other art forms, in that it must occupy itself not only with beauty but also functionality and practicality. (II, 47) Architecture also negotiates the relation between outer and inner in unique ways. Finally, architecture is charged with creating human space and, therefore, is foundational for the other arts. (II, 48) For example, architecture must provide shelter as well as possess a spiritual function. One can think of a home as providing shelter and comfort as well as providing a space for intellectual and creative work. Von Hildebrand shows how architecture strives to create space that is both practical and spiritual, while also drawing from and paralleling other arts like literature. To this end, he explores different types of building, the use of sculpture, frescoes, and mosaics in buildings and spaces as well architecture in nature, cities, and in the imitative arts.

Sculpture, largely understood as an imitative art (unlike architecture), concerns three dimensional forms of art. Von Hildebrand considers various types of sculpture as well as the material used in sculpture. The figure acts as the conceptual framework to understand sculpture and must be grasped in relation to certain factors: the represented body and the transposition of its natural beauty; the represented movement or position of the figure; body-feeling, or the way someone feels in her or his body; expression, both facial and metaphysically transposed; and inner unity. “Transposition” refers to the movement of value or meaning from one field of art into another, or from one aesthetic domain into an artistic one. For example, it refers to how values about nature are transposed into literature, or how values of literary beauty are transposed into architecture, and vice versa.

Painting and drawing are understood as forms of two-dimensional representation that seek to communicate or negotiate the relationship between some kind of originary experience and its representation in painting and/or drawing. Von Hildebrand is careful to draw a distinction between painting and photography. The philosopher focuses largely on figural painting and drawing and not on abstract painting. To this end, he discusses important aspects of painting, such as colour, the lived experience of the body in painting, the relationship between light and darkness, and composition. (II, 250) The literary work of art is distinguished from other art forms in that it possesses a unique mental structure, i.e., it is a unique creation of the human or personal spirit. (II, 266) Language is the unique medium of literature. Literature does present a state-of-affairs, but what is presented is not simply a communication of a series of actualities; rather, the literary work of art invites the deployment of the human imagination to understand and represent what is being written or spoken. The literary work elicits interpretation and critique. Literary works can meaningfully and immediately reveal values, including moral and aesthetic ones. (II, 287) Literature employs sound, tone and rhythm, as well as the expressive qualities and figure of speech, to imaginatively create a meaningful depiction of a state of affairs. Composition and storyline are key features that allow the literary work of art to come to full presence.

Music is the last form of art that von Hildebrand considers in his Aesthetics. Von Hildebrand notes,

Music is not an imitative art. The element of the representation of nature and of life is not found per se in music.…To speak of a completely different kind of representation in music is to refer to the expressive dimension of joy, sadness, abundant life, the sacred world or recollection, and of much else that is found in all music. It also includes the representation of natural phenomena such as a storm, the rushing sound of a brook, and the chirping of birds. The third dimension of the representation, namely, the union of sound and word, needs no explanation. The relationship between music and the imitative, then, is far more extensive than, say, in architecture, which is itself reality and not imitation. (II, 365)

The philosopher devotes his attention to the particular modes through which music expresses itself, for example, tempo, sound, and rhythm, as well as expression and composition. Music can transpose evil, repulsive, tragic and comic figures form other artistic genres, especially literature, for musical works of art like opera make extensive use of literary figures. The section on music also explores different forms of music, including Lieder, opera, folksongs, overtures, musical drama, and sacred music. The volume’s penultimate section presents a discussion of the importance of performance of literary and musical works of art.

The second volume concludes with a chapter on the viability of a work of art. Viability refers to the possibility of a work of art to stand on its own (selbstständige Kunstwerk). (II, 535) In other words, the viability of a work of art is determined according to whether it can have its own life (Eigenleben) and possess its own artistic reality. Viability is not the same as success; rather, the work must have its own value and importance. The work’s viability can become manifest through its interpersonal effects and whether or not the existence of the work perdures in the minds and hearts of those who understand art. Non-viability is marked by a work’s being boring and/or non-descript. Also, a work may be unviable when there is no transposition from or into other artistic fields or realms of value. (II, 549) Finally, a work may run out of steam as it progresses, and this may render a work no longer viable. Viability, though important, does not absolutely guarantee a work’s true artistic value. “It is clear that, in addition to the artistic beauty of the work, the fundamental values of depth and perfection are also a presupposition for objective viability in the sphere of great and noble art.” (II, 551)

Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Aesthetics is not only an important work in aesthetic theory but also a seminal phenomenological treatise. It beautifully captures the importance of value and disvalue and their meaning for our lives as human persons. The rich, detailed analysis manifests a realm of human experience that has intimate connections with our moral and social lives. The English translation and publication of von Hildebrand’s aesthetics is a monumental and significant achievement, as its gives English-speaking readers access to one of the phenomenological movement’s important and formative figures.